In ‘Pamela, a Love Story,’ Pamela Anderson Reflects on Her Journey With Endearing Sincerity

Beauty can be a curse. The cliché holds true when it comes to a particular kind of fame. Pamela Anderson has been locked in as a sex symbol to the point where it has been a struggle for her to be seen on equal measure as a rather nice person, admittedly naïve when it comes to romance, who has worked very hard to have success. The Netflix documentary, “Pamela, a Love Story,” makes the smart choice of keeping its style very simple and intimate. Director Ryan White lets Anderson be herself, without makeup, in a robe, while she looks back at her life using old family videos to frame the story. This is an honest testimonial with the feel of an afternoon conversation.

Many of the details of Anderson’s initial rise are well known, but are now narrated with her, at times, embarrassed squeak of a voice. The Canadian was discovered right on time to help define a decade, spotted on a sports arena Jumbotron in 1989 at the age of 22 during a football game. Real fame would arrive when she posed for Playboy. For Anderson, it was a taste of real freedom due to the doors that would open and her sense of having control over her body. But nothing would prepare her for the storm of fame itself. Global recognition came with her role in the TV series “Baywatch,” where, as a lifeguard, she made “slow motion running into an art form.” What still seems to define much of Anderson’s memories, understandably, is her marriage in the ‘90s to Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. According to Anderson, it was indeed the whirlwind romance presented at the time, with the two deciding to get married after knowing each other for only four days. What the marriage would then have to endure was the perils of becoming parents along with the infamous scandal following the theft of a sex tape of the couple.

Anderson has been very vocal in the press about her disenchantment with last year’s Hulu limited series, “Pam & Tommy,” which recounted the whole sex tape ordeal. It was actually a strong dramatization that presented Anderson with empathy. Of course, the feeling can be different when one is the actual subject of scandalous history. “Pamela, a Love Story” isn’t so much a corrective as a good bookend. To her credit, Anderson isn’t out to make excuses or make a hagiography. Painful memories, such as being molested by a babysitter, are openly discussed. She’s very nonchalant in discussing her famous breast implants in the ‘90s, or how she made sure to wear shoes during Playboy shoots because it made her feel less naked. It was an intense time of self-discovery where decisions were made in the moment. Anderson reads from her diaries of the time, hoping to break into acting and get married. Again, we get a glimpse of the sort of misogynist TV so in vogue in that era. Old interview clips revisit Jay Leno, Larry King and Matt Lauer as they all zero in on asking about her chest.

Along with Anderson’s interviews, what gives the documentary a more intimate feel are her video archives. VHS and digital tapes are helping create a new form for the famous to give us a peek into their memories, as seen in recent, moving documentaries like “Val” or “Kid 90.” Memories rushing by Anderson’s tape machines include Tommy Lee proposing while riding a horse in full shining knight’s armor. The infamously wild rock star seems rather sweet during breakfast at a luxurious hotel, while later he’s quite infantile in complaining about Anderson being busy all the time. As Anderson remembers it, once they had children, Lee couldn’t deal with not being the center of attention. Then came the sex tape scandal which shook everything at a time of other transitions, including Anderson trying to elevate her career with the 1996 box office bomb, “Barb Wire.” Astoundingly, we learn Anderson never wanted to learn who stole the tape, which was inside a safe taken from their home by a disgruntled construction worker. The scandal has left permanent scars clearly seen when the topic comes up. 

A running theme in the documentary is how Anderson remains a fearless romantic. She has pursued relationships with the same vigor with which she tackled her career, and somehow keeps finding a way to jump back into the arena after many disappointments. After divorcing Tommy Lee there were more lovers and marriages, all marked by Anderson’s admitted habit of liking “bad boys.” Celebrity poker players with drug habits, jealous athletes and others form part of Anderson’s romantic gallery. Surprisingly, rock star Kid Rock comes across as one of the saner of the bunch. He was apparently good to her sons, but she just didn’t feel the real spark of love. Although, the documentary does avoid mentioning Rock’s public brawl with Tommy Lee at the 2007 MTV VMAs, which resulted in court appearances. Anderson’s grown sons appear as well, having a ball while they look at the videos of their parent’s exploits and admitting they have inherited her adventurous streak when it comes to relationships.

There is another side to the Pamela Anderson story that does not involve tumultuous romances and obsessions with breast size. White gives ample space to Anderson explaining how she decided to use her looks for a good cause and became a PETA advocate, denouncing the use of furs. She publicly supports Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and even negotiates animal rights legislation with Vladimir Putin. Jovial and fun-loving she may be, but Anderson comes across as sincere in caring about important issues she has taken time to immerse herself in. By staying true to its subject, “Pamela, a Love Story” carries Anderson’s driving spirit, which at 55 is still full of great energy, as Anderson makes her quirks, follies and triumphs enjoyable to hear.

Pamela, a Love Story” begins streaming Jan. 31 on Netflix.